The 2-year-old Sumter County girl killed last week by an 8-foot pet Burmese python underscores the threat posed when wild animals are kept as pets. It follows incidents earlier this year in Nevada, where a 3-year-old boy was squeezed unconscious by an 18-foot pet reticulated python, and in Connecticut, where an escaped pet chimpanzee severely disfigured a woman.
Dangerous wild animals are not suitable pets. Florida recognizes this fact by ranking some inherently dangerous wild animals as Class 1, which means they cannot be pets and can only be kept in zoos or other regulated facilities. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been reviewing the list of Class 1 animals, and in June agreed to move cougars into Class 1. This is an important step, but Florida needs to take further action to protect people, animals and the environment.
Florida excludes large constrictor snakes from its classification system, but if they were ranked they certainly would be Class 1. The Florida toddler's death was the fourth by a pet python in the United States since 2006. The other three were adults with experience handling reptiles. In 2006, a teen working at the Tarpon Springs Aquarium was attacked by a 14-foot Burmese python, and a police officer had to break the snake's grip with a Taser.
Burmese pythons also upset Florida's ecosystems by preying on endangered species and challenging alligators for top-predator status. Escaped pet Burmese pythons are now established in the Everglades, and they have been found elsewhere in Florida. The problem could spread: Federal scientists say that the climate in the southern third of the country is similar to the python's native Asian habitat.
Florida's permit system for "reptiles of concern" isn't enough to stop the trade and potential release of these animals. Large constrictor snakes should be added to the classification system as Class 1.
Chimpanzees and other great apes are Class 1, but smaller primates are not, even though they too can cause serious injuries. Nonhuman primates also can spread deadly diseases to humans, and vice versa. In the pet trade, these social, intelligent animals live their lives in unnatural conditions, isolated from their kind. They deserve better. At least 20 states prohibit primates as pets, and Florida should join them by making all primates Class 1.
Because the exotic pet trade moves across state lines, federal action is needed, too. The Humane Society of the United States urges swift passage of the Captive Primate Safety Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate. This bill will prohibit interstate commerce in primates as pets.
We also applaud legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek that would add pythons to the federal injurious species list, prohibiting their import and interstate commerce for the pet trade. This legislation alone will not eliminate the established Burmese python population in the Everglades, nor will it address the numerous other exotic species in the pet trade that harm Florida's environment and put people at risk. But this legislation will close a major introduction pathway and help prevent pythons from becoming established in other parts of country.
Let's not wait for another tragedy. The need for responsible, meaningful action, including bans on imports and trade of pythons and primates as pets, has never been more urgent.
Jennifer Hobgood is the Florida state director for the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization.